“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”

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The MP Jeffrey Donaldson is right when he says: “These kinds of debates couldn’t have taken place 10 years ago – maybe even five years ago.”

He was thinking ahead to next month, and to an event being staged by the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group; and a Memorial Debate that carries the name of one-time loyalist leader John McMichael.

John McMichael (former leader of the UDA) and Andy Tyrie (UDA Supreme Commander) in front of the Ulster flag in the early 1980s. Image courtesy of – The Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

 

He was killed by an IRA booby-trap bomb 25 years ago, and the debate panel will include Sean Murray, once a leader in the IRA’s war, and Danny Morrison, who in the 1980s was Sinn Fein’s publicity director.

Their presence is what is different; an indication of what has changed and is changing – words replacing bullets.

The republicans will join Donaldson on a panel that will also include the UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt and Paul Clissold of the organising UPRG committee.

They are billing the debate as part of a series of commemorative events to celebrate the memory of the senior loyalist.

As well as being a paramilitary leader, McMichael was identified with the political strategy document Common Sense that dates back to the 1980s.

Parts of that document might make sense now, but not at the time; not when violence was dominating the headlines, and the UDA and McMichael were part of it.

The organisers of next month’s debate point to how that 1980s strategy paper “spelled out an alternative system of government which would encompass power sharing between both communities”.

“At the time of publication the document was rejected by mainstream unionism,” they said.

“Yet ironically today it’s very similar to the system of government in place.”

There is, of course, a missing context. At the time of the document’s publication, Sinn Fein was not the political force it is now, and the UDA was more identified with guns and bullets than political strategies.

Danny Morrison

 

“It couldn’t have been treated seriously because of what the loyalists were doing at that time,” Danny Morrison told eamonnmallie.com.

“There was the theory and there was the practice and there was an unbridgeable gulf between the two,” he said.

Similarly Sinn Fein documents such as Scenario For Peace that date back into the same period were ignored; not believed and not heard above the IRA’s gunfire.

There was, however, something that John McMichael wrote in the introduction of the Common Sense document that reads into today’s debate on the past.

“There is no section of this divided Ulster community which is totally innocent or indeed totally guilty; totally right or totally wrong.

“We all share the responsibility for creating the situation, either by deed or by acquiescence,” he continued.

“Therefore we must share the responsibility for finding a settlement and then share the responsibility of maintaining good government.”

Taking responsibility – sharing responsibility – for what happened in a decades-long conflict are unresolved matters; still part of an unanswered past.

That past is certain to be part of next month’s debate which has been given the title: Reflections.

Organisers are describing “a Question Time style format”…

“With guests from each of the main political parties present at a top table… to respond to questions and give their opinions, not just on the past, but on topical issues which concern the broader Protestant/unionist/loyalist community.”

So, it is not just about the past, but on that issue Mr Donaldson warned:

“John McMichael talked about Common Sense, and I think the debate on the past requires an injection of common sense.

“From our perspective there are a number of red lines in this process and we need to talk to people about that and about obtaining a more realistic approach,” he told eamonnmallie.com

“It is essential that the voice of the victims is also heard in all of this,” he continued.

“The debate [on the past]has to be fully inclusive, including those who have suffered the most,” he said.

Jackie McDonald who succeeded McMichael as a ‘brigadier’ on the UDA inner council will be part of the audience, and Andy Tyrie – the organisation’s so-called ‘supreme commander’ in the 1980s is being invited.

“It is hoped that the audience will be representative of a broad section of the community and various groups and bodies will have members there,” organisers said.

“This would include community workers, loyal order members, representatives from the marching band fraternity, politicians, police officers and representatives of the various statutory bodies operating within the greater Lisburn area.”

So, the date for the diary is October 25 – the debate part of a series of events to mark the 25th anniversary of McMichael’s death.

His son Gary went on to lead the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and was part of the ceasefire announcement in 1994 and the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

Loyalists then marched that political party off the stage and in doing so damaged, indeed some might argue destroyed, their own political project.

This too may well be part of the debate and the discussion and the reflections in a few weeks’ time.

 

Details: John McMichael Memorial Debate – ‘Reflections’, October 25 at 20.00 – Laganview Enterprise Centre, Drumbeg Drive, Lisburn.

 


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

18 Comments

  1. Hard to believe that it was 25 years ago when the NUPRG published ‘Common Sense’. Hard to imagine that when the DUP where organizing petitions against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, forming ‘Task Forces’, participating in unlawful marches and calling for ‘civil disobedience’ that such generous, practical, evolved thinking could come from the heart of Loyalism.

    The same year did see SFs “Scenario for Peace” which (obviously) received short shrift from Unionism but was also largely rejected by constitutional Irish Nationalists due to the ‘withdrawal’ demands – how does one force 1 million people out of their habitation?

    It was also the year of Loughgall and Enniskillen, amongst other tragedies that included the untimely loss of John McMichael.

    A gathering such as reported can, only, be positively lauded

    I quote Thich Nhat Hanh:

    “People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we
    release (or understand the origin of) those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore.”
    &
    “We have to continue to learn. We have to be open. And we have to be
    ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher
    understanding of reality.”

    Dialogue & debate – contemplate, understand, rationalize & agree on shared purpose.

    • This planned gathering Glenn with its panel and audience would have been unthinkable not that long ago, and, I agree, the fact that it is happening is an indication of progress being made.
      There is so much more still to do – on parades and the past to mention but two issues – but you’re right, about dialogue and debate.
      Let’s talk these things through rather than fight them out.
      You know – from your experience – that an angry word is not as dangerous as an angry bullet.

  2. Jeffrey says there are ‘a number of red lines’, and then the debate has to be ‘fully inclusive’.
    Make up your mind, Jeffrey.

    • Sherdy, I wonder do mainstream unionist politicians who speak of ‘victims’ mean all victims? Are the victims being used as a pathway into the ‘uncomfortable conversations’ or are they being used as a shield to justify staying away from this debate on reconciliation?

      • Eamonn, Possibly I’m biased (can anyone spending their life her be otherwise?), but I think your second suggestion is the more likely.

        • Mainstream Unionism, and especially the DUP, use as a shield. They are selective on the definition of a victim.

          Personally, I advocate a hierarchy of victims – those of us who where contributors (Both States, Army, Police, Republican Paramilitary and Loyalist Paramilitary) should not, morally or ethically, view ourselves in the same light as an innocent victim – and there have been innocents killed by all.

          The other dilemma is the categories within victims – there are those that seek justice or revenge; there are those that simply seek truth and there are those that wish to draw a line in the sand & move on. There is an over zealous focus on those that seek ‘justice’ or ‘revenge’ by both SF and the DUP and yet these people are actually the minority victim view.

          There is also an exasperating, hypocritical, bury the head in the sand routine by Mainstream Unionism to their contribution to creating victims – the reconstituted UVF in 1966 was borne of political Unionism; in the 70’s a lot of ‘snowballs’ where made for ‘others to throw’ by the DUP’ rabid hatred & sectarianism was espoused that generated violence; antics on hills & 3rd Force games of weaponry?

          The debate on truth and reconciliation will not be easy because ‘truth’ hurts.

  3. At the time of writing Common Sense, Ulster was again suffering yet another constitutional crisis, this time provoked by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, itself forged without consultation and thus unmandated by the Ulster people.
    This was an era when violence and uncertainty were all at a higher level than at anytime for almost a decade, and the ‘Ulster Says No’ campaign had harnessed widespread Unionist/Loyalist opposition towards interference in Ulster’s governance from a foreign government that still retained a territorial claim in articles 2&3 of their constitution.

    However, there was a realisation, in certain sections of Loyalism, that the ‘Anglo-Irish accord’ would not bring stability to Northern Ireland, because it was essentially a contract between two governments and not an agreement between ‘those in the cockpit of the conflict – Ulster Protestants and Ulster Catholics.’ Even though rejection of the accord remained absolute, there was a growing realisation that an alternative was necessary, and that it was no longer acceptable to simply say NO.
    a quote direct from Common Sense:

    ‘Who (in 1969) would have thought that after nearly twenty years the ‘troubles’ would still rage unabated with the Ulster Protestant-Loyalist-Unionist community and the Ulster Catholic-Irish Nationalist-Republican community still locked in stalemate? Yet here we are in 1987 with nothing to show for it all but the prospect of looking forward to an ever polarising society brutalised by violence, ravaged by fear and demoralised by economic depression…The stubborn determination of each community not to ‘give in’ to, nor be beaten by, the other ensures that the conflict could continue indeterminately unless we can produce a settlement which removes the main sources of antagonism to each side. In the quest for proposals which may lead to a social and political solution to the Ulster conflict we must first identify the parameters within which such proposals are realistic. Surely by now we recognise that there are limits beyond which each community will not (under any circumstances) retreat nor indeed be forced…Whilst we have no doubt that compromise and accommodation can be reached between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, it is impossible to compromise on the existence of Northern Ireland itself — it either exists or it doesn’t At present it exists and is a part of the United Kingdom This situation may not be the whole-hearted wish of everyone in the province but must be recognised to be the wish of most. Surely then this is the logical place to make a beginning’.

    Within these parameters of Common Sense it was proposes for: a) A devolved legislative government for Northern Ireland and a written constitution. A set of constitutional laws, agreed by Ulster catholics and protestants together which would lay the foundations on which to build a new progressive democracy. An agreement instituted by Ulster people at referendum which can only be changed by Ulster people at referendum. (b) A modern democratic political structure based on consensus government, proportional representation and shared responsibility (c) A Bill of Rights. (Note: Sammy Smith of the UPRG would go on to write a draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland before his assignation by the IRA on 10th March 1976) (d) A supreme court charged with the responsibility to uphold constitutional law and safeguard the rights of the individual as represented in the Bill of Rights. Many of us, now with the value of hindsight, and after the ‘WAR’ raging on unabatted for a further 11 years after the publication, would since see Common Sense as the precursor to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and as the blueprint for the consensual power-sharing arrangement we now inhabit. If memory serves me right, at the time, it received a muted welcome from the SLDP, and was left on a shelf to gather dust by most other observers, when It should have been explored, despite the background noise of the guns/bombs, as it could have ended these far sooner.This was a grassroots initiated attempt to resolve the conflict, and represented a model, from what Lederach would identify as the ‘bottom-up’, rather than the ‘top-down of the Anglo-Irish accord’, if only it would have received ‘middle-out’ support, our journey may have begun in earnest.

    ‘Who (in 1969) would have thought that after nearly twenty years the ‘troubles’ would still rage unabated with the Ulster Protestant-Loyalist-Unionist community and the Ulster Catholic-Irish Nationalist-Republican community still locked in stalemate? Yet here we are in 1987 with nothing to show for it all but the prospect of looking forward to an ever polarising society brutalised by violence, ravaged by fear and demoralised by economic depression…The stubborn determination of each community not to ‘give in’ to, nor be beaten by, the other ensures that the conflict could continue indeterminately unless we can produce a settlement which removes the main sources of antagonism to each side. In the quest for proposals which may lead to a social and political solution to the Ulster conflict we must first identify the parameters within which such proposals are realistic. Surely by now we recognise that there are limits beyond which each community will not (under any circumstances) retreat nor indeed be forced…Whilst we have no doubt that compromise and accommodation can be reached between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, it is impossible to compromise on the existence of Northern Ireland itself — it either exists or it doesn’t At present it exists and is a part of the United Kingdom This situation may not be the whole-hearted wish of everyone in the province but must be recognised to be the wish of most. Surely then this is the logical place to make a beginning’.

    Within these parameters of Common Sense it was proposes for:
    a) A devolved legislative government for Northern Ireland and a written constitution. A set of constitutional laws, agreed by Ulster catholics and protestants together which would lay the foundations on which to build a new progressive democracy. An agreement instituted by Ulster people at referendum which can only be changed by Ulster people at referendum.
    (b) A modern democratic political structure based on consensus government, proportional representation and shared responsibility
    (c) A Bill of Rights. (Note: Sammy Smith of the UPRG would go on to write a draft Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland before his assignation by the IRA on 10th March 1976)
    (d) A supreme court charged with the responsibility to uphold constitutional law and safeguard the rights of the individual as represented in the Bill of Rights.
    Many of us, now with the value of hindsight, and after the ‘WAR’ raging on unabatted for a further 11 years after the publication, would since see Common Sense as the precursor to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and as the blueprint for the consensual power-sharing arrangement we now inhabit.
    If memory serves me right, at the time, it received a muted welcome from the SLDP, and was left on a shelf to gather dust by most other observers, when It should have been explored, despite the background noise of the guns/bombs, as it could have ended these far sooner.
    This was a grassroots initiated attempt to resolve the conflict, and represented a model, from what Lederach would identify as the ‘bottom-up’, rather than the ‘top-down of the Anglo-Irish accord’, if only it would have received ‘middle-out’ support, our journey may have begun in earnest.

    • John – let’s hope in 20 years time people aren’t saying, ‘if only we’d done a bit more on parades and on the question of dealing with the past in 2012 we might be in a better place now’.
      Who has the big thinking on these issues?
      Whoever it is, they need to start sharing it before we get ourselves into another mess, and then leave that mess for another generation to tidy up.

  4. The fact that this debate is happening, and that those once in the ‘cockpit of the conflict’ are represented on the panel, and these are the same people who now find themselves as the cutting edge of the developing peace, is indeed a welcome development.

    • I couldn’t agree more. More and more people at the coal face of the Troubles are now in the vanguard of this reconciliation process. John, the challenge has to be in working class Protestant areas – how to turn this new fresh thinking into representational politics.

      • We have often heard it said, that Loyalism has never made the transition into the political domain, despite having several unsuccessful forays outside the mainstream, and these mostly as independent voices. Lets be clear, this is a misconception at best and a lie at the worst.

        Clearly there are those within the political landscape of Stormont today, that once classified themselves as ‘Loyalists’, who grew their political mandate and forged their career-path against the backcloth of ‘Loyalist activism’ and indeed conveniently used ’Loyalism’ as the muscle and vehicle to facilitate that journey. Many amongst us will remember: the Ulster workers Council strike of 74 and the involvement of what today is known as ‘Political Unionism’ in that strike, as they responded to the mass support and seen the opportunity to harness this and shape it for their own ends; we remember the invasion of Clontibret in County Monaghan in 1986, and other well documented developments…

        Some of these very same ’Loyalists’ are in today’s government, many in senior positions, yet they now re-classify themselves as ‘Unionists’, as it seems Loyalism has become a dirty word! The only distinction that can be made, with the value of hindsight, is Unionists would become those that demanded action for the defence of Ulster, and ‘Loyalists’ would be those who responded and took action, whilst others were content to never allow their actions stray beyond the verbal domain. Yet one thing is certain, ‘Loyalist’s’, if they are nothing else, are Unionists too, as by definition they continue to support the maintenance of the Union and vote for Unionist parties in elections. Loyalism continues to be the platform upon which Unionism is built, it is the democratic tail of Unionism and its traditional power-base.

        The U.P.R.G has made several calls for ‘Unionist-Unity’, a grass-roots based request, that has since been taken up by a few mainstream Unionist voices, albeit some of whom may have an eye fixed more on what they can get out of this as a vote-catching exercise, rather than what Loyalist Communities can get in real terms. It must be recognised that Nationalist/Republic representatives have been quick off the mark to dress this legitimate grassroots-based demand up as some sort of undemocratic forging of an electoral-pact between strands of political Unionism, and many Unionists have contributed to this analysis by restricting the concept of Unionist Unity across a rigid horizontal framework. However, it must be understood that this demand is for Unity to emerge on the vertical axis, between the elected representatives and the ‘Unionist/Loyalist’ electorate, in a forging of a participative democracy, where ‘Loyalists’ can begin to interact with these representatives’, hold them to account in terms of that representation, contribute to various decision making processes and influence policy. Whilst some progressive elements in the wilderness of Unionism are embracing that challenge, and forging new relations between the Loyalist/Unionist community, others have been slow to take up the baton and remain to be convinced, and indeed there are still those who downright refuse to consider that Unionist/Loyalist communities can have a viewpoint, voice or articulated thought to share.

        Our interest remains in re-connecting the democratic tail of Loyalism, to address the democratic deficit, and it must be said, and recognised, that some ‘Loyalist’ designated areas are having many successes towards this challenge.

        Indeed, as the U.P.R.G have indicated in the past, “Loyalists must learn how to make the ballot-box work…we must learn to utilise the ballot-box to maximum effect because dividing unionism is not the way to do that, as some would have us believe.”

        The best way to promote the aims of Loyalism is through exercising our democratic right.

  5. I think that the debate is to be welcomed and the UPRG (South Belfast) see this as being part of a series of interlinking debates and presentations that highlight both “The John McMichael Principles” and our own post conflict analysis that pinpoints where we are today and where we need to be in the coming years. Engagement with representatives from all so called mainstream political parties is something that we have always sought, not in the sense of self justification or a form of enhancement but to elucidate and inform. So it is certainly an important evening and one which can only be welcomed. Loyalism seems to have been at a ‘crossroads’ for umpteen years in redefining itself as a positive influence in predominantly working class areas and it has only worked in fits and starts. Any post conflict ‘dividend’ appears to have expired a while ago and we find ourselves yearning for a united vision that John McMichael so clearly had. The prescience of John McMichael is something that I have waxed lyrical about for some time now and yet we never seem to be wholly integrated into the new political dispensation in the way that he envisaged. We must surely accept some of the blame but equally politicians have been slow (in my opinion) to offer encouragement (not inducement I hasten to add). So that is one topic! Other topics bound to be discussed will include the Maze redevelopment, education, unemployment and youth development, parades, the hierarchy of victims and what we (all groupings) visualise as a way forward in the years to come. I hope that it will be enjoyable and enlightening.

    • Paul – good to have you here as part of this conversation, and I look forward to the debate on October 25.
      Loyalism needs to speak for itself, and on occasions be prepared to say unpopular and unwelcome things – including on parades.
      The biggest challenge, I think, is the need to separate what I would term “cause loyalism” from criminal loyalists.
      Good luck next month, in a debate, that I think, shows how enemy relationships are melting and new, dare I say it, friendships beginning to be built.
      Your event is another confirmation that the ‘wars’ are over.

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